FSOT Prep: State Department Writing and How to Prepare for the FSOT Essay

Writing, writing, writing… It’s how the State Department conducts its business. State does also rely on oral communication, and there are millions of telephone calls, video conferences, and PowerPoint presentations every year. But decision-making both in the Department and overseas is through written memos. Some will go to the Ambassador at post, some will go to an Assistant or Under Secretary, and some will go all the way up to the Secretary of State (SecState) and the President (POTUS). From overseas there are spot reports, analysis pieces, and mandatory messages, like the Human Rights Report. In the Department, there are action memos, briefing memos and info memos. FSOT Prep will help you improve your writing.

Good Writers Are Promoted Faster

The Foreign Service cares deeply about writing.  Good writers are tenured and promoted faster than their peers. If you’re overseas, you’ll be drafting reports, what State calls ‘cables,’ back to the Department and to other posts. The Political (Pol) or Economic (ECON) sections could be sending out cables on human rights conditions, the in-fighting within the ruling party, or how the government and courts are not policing intellectual property violations. The Public Diplomacy (PD) Officer could be sending in a cable with the names and reviews of applicants for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program or how free is the local press. The Consular Officer (Cons) might prepare a Briefing Memo for the Ambassador’s call on the local Police Chief. The Management Officer could be writing a memorandum of conversation (MemCon) with the local power company.

Writing is so important to the State Department that there are writing tests on all parts of the FSOT: in the first part of the FSOT, the Personal Narratives, and the Oral Assessment. In the following, I will give you advice on how to prepare for the first FSOT essay.


How Best to Prepare for the FSOT Writing Tests

Although this post is primarily for those who need a little help with their writing, it provides information important for good writers, too.

  1. All FSOT applicants should practice their writing before the test. I would recommend every day to produce 250 words of copy, especially the month before the test. Writing is like a muscle, the more you use it the faster and stronger you get;
  2. For the FSOT Essay (Part I)  you will only have 25 minutes and a maximum of 2,800 characters (approximately 550 words, or two pages)
  3. To practice for the essay test, pull questions out of articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post or The Economist.  For example, if you read an article about the U.S. trade imbalance, write five-paragraph essay under a 25-minute time limit.
    • Start in para 1 with a strong thesis statement and hook.
    • Lay out your findings in paras 2-4 that provide points to reinforce your argument and how you analyzed the issue.
    • Finally, in para 5, restate your thesis statement and connect it to the body of the essay, underlining each piece of information from paras 2-4. You final sentence should uphold your argument in a clear and compelling way.
  4. This is very important. In the FSOT essay, you will not be judged on your position but on how you analyze a topic and draft a coherent essay. The reviewers are only looking at the mechanics and analysis of the topic. They want to see proper grammar, English usage, transitions, and punctuation;
  5. For that reason, besides writing practice, I suggest you identify good transitions ahead of time, including “Experts say…” or “Certain governments are concerned…” or “a recent Stanford University/Harvard/ NYU/University of Chicago study showed that…” Yes, the studies may be make-believe but they will help you move through your main paragraphs, 2-4.

For applicants seeking to improve their writing skills, I recommend the following books and website (Note: if you purchase the books here, I will receive a small commission from Amazon that I use to defray the costs of running the website)


Free WebpageHome | plainlanguage.gov
This is a U.S. Government (USG) website that provides information on the use of plain language. Congress passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 mandating that the website provide a source of information so that government writers can learn to write clearly, enabling the public to better understand government rules and edicts.

I found the following books to be very helpful to not only improve your writing but also to help you frame an argumen. The last book teaches how to write like a journalist. It is excellent and precisely the type of writing FSOs do overseas, especially Pol and Econ officers. It’s a bit overpriced at $24.95 so make sure you look for a previous version among the used books.


The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
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On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
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